Shared from the 1/23/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

FEMA denials, slow inspections worry advocates

Fewer than half of state applicants approved for aid


Nearly five months after Hurricane Harvey devastated portions of the Gulf Coast, federal officials have approved emergency assistance for fewer than half of the Texans who applied, and hundreds of thousands of applicants’ homes have not been inspected, according to an analysis by a nonprofit group.

Advocates for disaster survivors, meanwhile, are pressing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release more detailed data to help monitor the allocation of billions of dollars in long-term recovery funds. A draft plan for using some of that money was released last week, with public comments due Feb. 1.

Across a swath of Texas from Corpus Christi to Beaumont, 45 percent of homeowners and 36 percent of renters had been approved for assistance as of Jan. 8, according to an analysis by Texas Housers, an Austin-based nonprofit focused on the housing needs of poor Texans. The disparity can be explained in part by the fact that renters are not eligible for repair funds, but can get other types of help.

More recent data provided by FEMA to the Houston Chronicle shows that 895,342 Texans had registered for assistance as of Jan. 19. Forty-one percent had been approved and 31 percent deemed ineligible. The remaining applications were awaiting action by FEMA or had been withdrawn, were awaiting a ruling on insurance or had been referred to the Small Business Administration for a possible loan. FEMA stopped accepting applications Nov. 30.

“It’s not reasonable that FEMA is taking so long to conduct these inspections,” said John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Housers. “I think it’s an indication that FEMA has not deployed adequate resources to address the size of the Hurricane Harvey incident, and that’s an injustice to the disaster survivors.”

The Texas Housers’ analysis represents an effort to determine where the greatest needs remain nearly five months after Harvey struck Texas, destroying thousands of homes and businesses with punishing winds and record-breaking floods.

Officials signaled a shift from emergency response to long-term recovery last week, when the Texas General Land Office released a draft plan for spending $57.8 million — the first batch in the billions in federal money expected to pour into the state.

After a disaster like Harvey, FEMA contractors hire inspectors to document housing damage or other issues, such as personal property losses, that may qualify an applicant for assistance. FEMA determines eligibility based in part on the findings.

FEMA said Monday that it had completed inspections for 67 percent of the homes with valid registrations. It did not respond to a question about why so many remain unfinished.

Federal officials deny assistance when an applicant is deemed ineligible, a decision based on many possible factors.

Many people misunderstand eligibility rules but apply anyway. FEMA cannot duplicate benefits, for example, yet some people seek government help even if they have insurance to cover the damage, agency spokesman Robert Howard said.

Other cases are harder to explain. Malberth Moses, 60, a Houston carpenter, recently told the Texas House Urban Affairs Committee that FEMA denied him assistance to repair his house after Harvey’s rains “poured down so much water that the house started to sink.”

Moses said he had been unable to work since Harvey because he lost his car and his tools. He said he had to move into a motel because of the damage to his home.

But Moses said the FEMA inspector “told me that this is an existing problem.”

“I don’t understand that, because the house was livable before … Harvey came through,” Moses said.

FEMA generally does not comment on individual applicants.

But the fact that most applicants have not been approved reflects two key concerns among hurricane survivors and their advocates: the slow pace of completing inspections and the possibility that deserving applicants are being rejected unfairly.

Among the other findings of the Texas Housers’ analysis:

• Applications for help from residents of the Houston-Galveston area accounted for 73 percent of the statewide total. About 40 percent of the requests from this area had been approved.

• Almost $1.5 billion in assistance had been awarded as of Jan. 8. About 58 percent had been used for home repair or replacement, 20 percent for rental assistance and 22 percent for other needs.

• Owners have received 84 percent of the assistance, compared to 16 percent for renters. The proportion going to renters ranged from a low of 5 percent in the Brazos Valley to 31 percent in the region around Victoria.

The report said the information provided by FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would be more useful if it were more specific. FEMA provides data at the ZIP code level, and HUD at the census block group level.

Henneberger said Texas Housers wants FEMA to release data at the household level, without disclosing names. This would give planners a better understanding of factors such as the income levels of those seeking help, he said.

“It’s our contention — and I think it’s plainly evident — that if the public doesn’t have access to the data about where the claims are, and doesn’t have detailed data about the nature of the claims, it’s impossible for the public to comment on how they’re going to spend the money,” he said.

Howard said federal privacy laws forbid disclosure of these details. Addresses could be used to determine identities, he said.

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